With his first child, a couple of indie films (“Prince Avalanche,” “The Motel Life,” “Twice Born“), a miniseries (A&E‘s “Bonnie and Clyde“) and a meaty high-profile role on the horizon (John Belushi in the as-of-yet untitled biopic), 2013 is chalking up to be a pretty good year for Emile Hirsch. Over the course of his film career (his debut being in “The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys” in 2002), Hirsch has frequently varied his acting choices. Being led simply by the quality of the material rather than trying to configure a trajectory or formulate a brand, Hirsch has run the gamut of being a young actor in (and outside of) Hollywood: nominated for a MTV Music Award For Best Kiss (with Elisha Cuthbert in “The Girl Next Door“), portraying real-life characters to varying critical acclaim (“Lords of Dogtown,” “Alpha Dog,” “Into The Wild,” “Milk“), taking on an iconic cartoon character in a big-budget Wachowski sibling movie (“Speed Racer“), starring alongside a mustachioed Paul Rudd in a David Gordon Green film while wearing Mario Bros.-eque suspenders (“Prince Avalanche“) and more.
“The Motel Life,” his latest film, is based off of Willy Vlautin‘s (lead singer and songwriter of Richmond Fontaine) debut novel of the same name, which centers around two very close brothers grappling in the aftermath of a hit-and-run accident in Reno, Nevada. Helmed by film-producers-turned-first-time-directing-team Alan and Gabe Polsky, Hirsch plays Frank, one of two brothers alongside Stephen Dorff, as the crippled sibling Jerry Lee, with a cast that includes Kris Kristofferson and Dakota Fanning. Premiering at the 2012 Rome Film Festival, our critic Jessica Kiang wrote praise for both the film and Hirsch’s performance in her review, noting that “Hirsch does a terrific job as Frank, the bright one, who has all the potential but has somehow forgotten how to access it.”
At 28, Hirsch already has a string of films to his name of which people twice, even thrice, his age would be proud. On the cusp of another career transition (Christopher McCandless, Clyde Barrow, John Belushi—who’s next?), Hirsch sat down with Rodrigo Perez to talk about “The Motel Life,” what sort of material draws him in and jokes that he’s actually losing weight to play Belushi.
What drew you to the material when you were first offered it?
First and foremost, the script by Noah Harpster and Micah Fitzerman-Blue. It was a well-drawn characters and some interesting dynamics—I hadn’t really seen their particular relationship as brothers in a movie before. It’s not a contentious relationship. They don’t have cross words between them, so it’s a nuanced relationship of how they expressed their love for each other. Whether it’s sympathetically and supportive, even as they do the wrong thing trying to avoid the hit and run that Jerry Lee commits and Frank’s sort of brought in on the guilt, and then Jerry Lee sort of sacrificing himself in the end for Frank to give Frank a life. To give him a chance to keep going.
So it was that, and I also really liked Reno—the idea of this kind of Americana backdrop, this forgotten city that used to be all the rage, it used to be Vegas essentially. And now it’s this dilapidated city and certainly the source material, the novel by Willy Vlautin. The detail and the writing made me feel I could also use the novel as a balancing board for myself developing and ultimately performing the character. The way that Frank is in the script and the movie, he’s a very still guy, who doesn’t really express his feelings. He doesn’t talk a lot, which to me was a challenge. I’m more naturally expressive than Frank is. I wear my emotions on my sleeve more than someone like Frank. So that was a challenge: to try to find that minimalist performance, make it feel authentic and believable but also still interesting, because sometimes you can go minimalist and it’s completely uninteresting.
What are some minimalist performances you admire?
Gary Oldman in “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” or Heath Ledger in “Brokeback Mountain” and also one of the great underplayed performances was [Ulrich Mühe] in “The Lives of Others.” An incredible minimalist performance. I knew that this is not a big pyrotechnic performance on my part. There’s not fireworks going off. It’s a very contained thing. How do you go quiet and keep it interesting for the audience? So it had a technical challenge to it right off the bat.
How did you relate to the sibling relationship in the film?
I don’t have a brother, so I couldn’t identify in that way to it. But it goes beyond a sibling relationship—they’re not only brothers to each other but they’re also mothers and fathers for each other because they’re all each other has as family. They’re almost lovers and soul mates because they don’t have anyone else.
It’s a unique male dynamic you don’t see often.
We’re like two doting husbands on each other. I’m bringing him ice cream and he’s drawing me pictures and we’re crying together. You know it’s a very kind of effeminate relationship and I’m not trying to reduce it, it just doesn’t have that traditional machismo—“I’m going to give you a wedgie and a noogie, bro” dynamic, which I think is sweet. One of the reasons a lot of audience members who get emotionally involved with it are doing so because they’re not fighting this adversarial machismo, which can kind of numb you to feelings sometimes. It’s so effeminate that, as an audience member, you let your guard down because you’re not forced to put it up really.
There’s a lot of great vulnerability here and it strikes me that you and Stephen have a lot of affection for these characters.
Yeah, that’s another testament to the novel’s writing. Vlautin’s able to sketch these really indelible, endearing portraits of character and Stephen and I really embraced them. He still calls me Frank to this day. If he texts me, he’s “Hey Frank, how are you?” He has never stopped at all. I think it’s a lot easier to do that as an actor when it’s characters that you think are good people.
You beat me to my next question. Is it easier when you like the characters?
It’s much easier. When it’s characters you detest or you can’t help but morally make judgments upon, you can’t control your mind. Those are the characters that you let go of really quick. I would imagine it’s hard for Daniel Day-Lewis to let go of Lincoln because there’s so many admirable characteristics. It’s almost like you don’t want to let that go because you don’t want to lose what the character’s sort of taught you.
Have you ever played characters you’ve had trouble empathizing or understanding?
Certainly some of the more criminal characters I’ve played. The Johnny Truelove character in “Alpha Dogs,” the guy has a lot of problems. He’s not someone you aspire to be like.
Does that ever put you in a weird head space when you inhabit characters like that?
Not really, because the production process is pretty short. For theater actors playing a Shakespearean villain eight days a week for months on end, I think that’s way more intense. I think it’s fun because you get to be in that head space with zero consequences and at the end of the day, you are who you are and you can go back to your life.
What kind of characters do you gravitate towards?
Well-written material tends to have the most interesting characters. I like a variation. I love playing the character in “Prince Avalanche,” who is kind of sweet, dumb, goofy and funny, unintentionally most of the time, but maybe there’s a certain part of him that also is a little funny and plays that up to. I like that, I’m hopefully going to do more comedy in the future, but obviously with the [Jim] Belushi part, there’s a lot more comedy but I like drama too.
To that end, it’s difficult to peg your career. Is that by design?
Definitely not. Because I like to engage in both comedy and drama in one role … and David Gordon Green trusted me on “Prince Avalanche” to do that. He knows me too, so I think he knew I could get that role right. But I don’t have a specific brand or anything I’m trying to protect. Sometimes when actors start opening movies for big money that’s when they start honing in their brand a little bit, because if they go all over the map suddenly their brand isn’t really … they’re not going to make as much money on each movie. Because they’re not as reliable, they may not deliver some opening weekend or something. There are times when I feel actors are making more of a business decision than a talent decision. Like “Oh, this actor’s so limited.” The actor might not actually be that limited, he just wants to make five million bucks a movie. So he’s trying to protect that.
The obligation of protecting your brand and all that it generates, financial or otherwise.
There also is a little bit of truth to that because you don’t want to be so all over the map. You do one role and it gets a lot of attention and then another role and suddenly no one’s buying you in your new role. You want to be credible in any role and I think comedians have trouble over the years when they establish themselves in comedic roles and then they shift over to a drama. They’re often great, but the audience doesn’t always embrace them.
Unpredictable, but not too unpredictable?
Well, that’s kind of a result of not being a massive actor in a certain sense. I feel like the lower your profile is, the more freedom you have, because nobody gives a shit. They’re like “Yeah, play whatever the fuck you want.”
That’s a good position to be in creatively.
Oh, definitely. As long as you can get the roles. It’s a fine line between playing whatever you want and actually getting the part. If they don’t care at all, they may not care to give you the part. So it’s funny, the world of acting and actors getting parts and what they can play and don’t play behind the scenes of it all, it’s actually kind of a funny dynamic. It’s a lot more nuanced I think than people realize.
Sounds like it would drive people to be really neurotic after a while.
I’m sure it could. Most actors are fairly neurotic anyway.
You almost worked with David Gordon Green a while back, right?
Yeah, we almost made “Goat” when I was like 19, that Brad Land novel.
Oh right, essentially about fraternity hazing.
Yeah, it’s probably better that we didn’t do that. I don’t know how much fun it would be to do a David Gordon Green movie where you’re getting hazed the whole time. He’ll just get like real fat guys …
To beat the shit out of you?
Yeah, just go with it.
You were talking about Belushi earlier. People didn’t immediately think of you for that role, but it’s probably a cool challenge at the very least, right?
Absolutely. It’s kind of annoying though because people are automatically so obsessed with the weight. Right off the bat, when people ask me in interviews now—The Playlist is cool so I’ll give you the actual down low—but I’ve just started to tell people that I’m going to lose weight for the role. That we’re doing a creative interpretation of the part where Belushi’s just rail thin in our version. I’m telling people this with a straight face and just seeing their reaction.
[Laughs] I was almost going to joke when I saw you, “Hey dude, where are the Twinkies?”
People are obsessed. America’s obsessed with weight.
They’re also obsessed with this rigid concept of ideal—as if an actor who doesn’t look 100% like the person can’t make the transformation. And that’s the part of your job.
And there’s all kinds of tricks and transformations. Ultimately you have to get the spirit of him first, the most important thing. You could gain hundreds of pounds and if you don’t capture that, no one’s going to give a shit anyway.
That nailed it—you’ve got to get that essence. So what is that in Belushi to you?
There’s an unpredictableness and a wildness. It’s just the certain maniacal-ness. I haven’t fully done my research yet, it’s too early for me to have any kind of declarative statement on what he was like. It’s way, way too early, but I certainly think it will be a very interesting look at his life.
I assume it’s not just comedic and must be dark, because obviously, there were darker elements in his life.
Yeah, it’s both. I think [the director] Steve Conrad, he wrote “The Weatherman’s Pursuit of Happiness” and “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” He’s very good at finding these very special tones. I don’t want to speak for the way he plans to do it yet, but I feel like he has a very unique perspective and voice that will come into play.He wrote the script. He knows the story. He’s working really hard.
The Polsky brothers hadn’t directed before but obviously gave you enough confidence to go for it. Are there writers or directors you want to work with?
As long as they’ve got that something. As long as they either can convince me in a room or maybe they haven’t made a movie or they have a really promising first feature or a great short. You have to be very shrewd the way you gauge people and I think the combination of the Polskys, they put me at ease. They haven’t directed a movie, but there are two of them and they’re very different, so I think any bad idea one of them might have the other counters. There’s like a built in safety catch with them [laughs].
I’m curious to see what they do next. I really thought “Motel Life” was sweet and soulful.
The Polsky’s are also very smart about who they brought into the process. They went out of their way to get collaborators. They come from producing, so a lot of the things that first time directors wouldn’t put priority on—getting the A-list editor, the great composer, the A-list DP—they put importance on.That’s huge, because it’s such a collaboration. There are a lot of talented first time directors out there, but then they drop the ball in these other ways and they think they can chew and swallow the whole thing on their own and they end up paying for it later in the cut. I don’t really have a big laundry list of filmmakers right now, but there’s certainly so many talented ones that I’d be lucky to work with. — Interview by Rodrigo Perez
“The Motel Life” is in theaters and on VOD now.